Archive for May 2013

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

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I was a bit skeptical as I began reading The Hunger Games, earlier this year. The hype of The Hunger Games had reached a high, and I couldn't help but see what all the fuss was about. I quickly read the first novel and was pleasantly surprised. Upon completion, I decided that the novel was an entertaining way to comment on social and cultural topics. I did feel that there was room for improvement, but was invested enough to continue with the sequel, Catching Fire.

The novel finds Katniss adjusting to life as a victor of The Hunger Games. For those unfamiliar with the games, it is an annual event in which each of the twelve districts of Panem, a distopian version of the US, send a boy and a girl to fight to the death in commemoration of the historic revolution. The people of Katniss's home district 12 are used to working hard to barely stay afloat. As the victor of the games, however, Katniss has a new home and more money that she is accustom to. Despite this, she longs for her life before the games.

Her victory was unconventional, to say the least. For the first time in the history of the games, Katniss was not the sole victor. After a strange turn of events that saw her acting like she fell in love with Peeta, the boy competing from district 12, the pair both were named victors and given all of the perks that come with the title. But with this unconventional victory came many unforeseen consequences. While Katniss only acted like she loved Peeta, for the sake of the games, Peeta truly fell in love with Katniss. Still, Katniss's heart belongs to her best friend and hunting partner, Gale. On a larger level, Katniss's victory was perceived as an act of defiance against the Capitol, and threatens to spark a whole new revolution. Now Katniss must try to mend her personal life while convincing the president and citizens of Panem that she never intended to cause problems.

This novel was quite an improvement over the first novel. With all of the backstory and history fully established, Collins was able to devote more time to discovering the emotional layers of each character, even those that initially seemed to be only supporting roles. There is a political thriller permeating the young adult/fantasy exterior of this novel, that allows for quick pacing and darker undertones. Without giving away the story, there were several strong twists that I genuinely didn't see coming. Towards the end, the novel teetered on the edge of predictability, but managed to provide a satisfying ending that promises for an exciting conclusion to the trilogy.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 22, book 22)

Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice by Michael Brandman

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Ironically, I was initially fooled by this novel, Robert B. Parker's Fool Me Twice. At first glance, it would appear that the novel is written by author Robert B. Parker. As someone who had never previously read any of Parker's novels or followed the author himself, I had no idea that Parker passed away in 2010. Upon further inspection, I realized that the novel was, in fact, a continuation of his popular Jesse Stone series, written by Michael Brandman. Of course, other characters by late authors, such as Sidney Sheldon and Dick Francis, have continued to appear in new novels, to middling results, so I knew that Fool Me Twice would be hit or miss. Michael Brandman, however, is no stranger to the Jesse Stone Character. In fact, he worked closely with Robert B. Parker as he produced the CBS film versions of the novels. This familiarity and respect seems to allow Brandman to successfully continue the series.

Jesse Stone is the police chief of the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. As summer approaches, so does the town's excitement for the production of a new Hollywood film to be shot in the city. Of course, with a production of this size comes a variety of challenges. Jesse learns that the star of the film is going through a nasty divorce and her ex-husband has threatened her life. The Mayor tasks Jesse with keeping the production secure and making sure the duration of the filming runs smoothly.

Additionally, Jesse must continue to handle local issues. At the start of the novel, he arrests a teenage girl who's cell phone usage caused a head on collision with another driver. But the accident is not as cut and dry as it seems. It turns out that the young woman is the daughter of a local business man who contributes heavily to the judges and DA of the town. Jesse is forced to battle his own morals against direct orders from his superiors.

Finally, another local case is also drawing Jesse's attention. He receives a call from a local busy-body townswoman who has noticed her water utility rates rise despite no increase in usage or rate hikes. He brushes this off as a woman looking for attention until he receives another call from a concerned citizen. He begins to casually investigate this increase, not expecting to find much. What he discovers, however, is a scandal that could potentially rock the small town of Paradise.

As with the T.V. movies that I've seen featuring Jesse Stone, Fool Me Twice is a light, entertaining read. The story itself is fairly predictable, but it is the quick wit and genuine good will of Jesse Stone that elevates this novel and keeps the plot moving. Having never read any of the previous novels by Parker, I can't attest to the continuation of the character by Michael Brandman. I can however say that this was a quick read that kept me entertained for a couple of hours. The characters, including Stone, are never allowed to reveal emotions beyond the typically expected surface, but they do play nicely into this light mystery novel.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 22, book 21)

Rough Country by John Sandford

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A small resort town in northern Minnesota gets a shock when one of its guests, Erica McDill, is shot in the head during a kayaking outing. McDill is a prominent advertising executive, from the Twin Cities, whose death precedes a large transition in her company that would make her the largest stockholder.

Virgil Flowers is fishing with a friend when he receives a call from his boss, Lucas Davenport. With that, his vacation comes to an end and he makes his way to the scene of McDill's murder. You see, Virgil is an investigator for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) who only tackles "the hard stuff". He doesn't fit the investigator stereotypes. Rather, he keeps his blond hair long, wears t-shirts with logos of obscure bands, and finishes off the ensemble with blue jeans and boots. Despite his unusual appearance, Virgil is known for getting results.

The investigation takes an unusual turn when Virgil learns that the resort is an all women's establishment. His fears are confirmed when boot tracks, from an expensive women's shoe company, are discovered in the mud near the murder site. Quickly, Virgil is immersed into the small town and its lesbian subculture. With the possibility of past murders connecting to the death of McDill, and the ever growing threat of more violence, Virgil struggles to keep his own emotions in check as he searches for the mysterious killer.

I've been a fan of John Sandford's Virgil Flowers series since reading the first book, Dark of The Moon. There is something very appealing about Virgil's oddball behavior and fantastic instincts. As always, Sandford keeps his writing simple and accessible. More so than the previous novels, however, Rough Country felt a little slower and less important than the other two. The opening portion in particular seemed a bit overlong. How long can you really wander through the woods before losing your audience. Fortunately, just as I was wondering when the book would pick up, Sandford introduced a new thread to the mystery that propelled the novel to a solid ending. The plot of this story doesn't allow as much time to spend learning about this interesting character, but the mystery itself is strong enough to make Rough Country worth the read and to make me eager to continue this series.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 21, book 20)

NOS4A2 by Joe Hill

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Author Joe hill has been on my radar for quite some time. Years ago, I read his fantastic collection of short stories and have been following him ever since. His works usually combine his erie sensibilities with fan-boy pop culture throughout. With the release of his latest novel, NOS4A2, Hill has crafted his largest and most ambitious novel to date.

The story mainly follows the character Victoria McQueen. We first meet young Vic as small child. One day, as her parents argue over a lost bracelet, she discovers her secret power. While riding her bike, she rides over the Shorter Way bridge. She comes out on the other side, in the parking lot of the fast-food joint where she ate with her father, hours before. A bit shocked, she enters the restaurant and finds that her mother's lost bracelet was left there. Quickly she returns, traveling again across the bridge, and gives her parents the bracelet.

Over the next few years, Vic's family life goes downhill. After years of witnessing her father's abuse against her mother, Vic continues to use her bike as a kind of escape. Even after the old Shorter Way bridge is torn down, Vic can still ride her bike across it and end up exactly where she needs to be. Fearing that others won't understand this strange gift, she keeps it secret.

One day, Vic has a huge argument with her mother. Her father has since left the family for a younger woman, and Vic lashes out at her mother for searching her room and invading her privacy. Furious, she  rides off on her bike, over the Shorter Way bridge, and away from her troubles. But this time, she ends up in the clutches of the evil Charlie Manx. Like Vic, he too can conjure alternate worlds by driving in his antique Rolls Royce. Unlike Vic, however, he uses his power to abduct small children and take them to his created world, Christmasland.

Through determination and luck, Vic is able to escape from his morbid "Sleigh House" and, with the help of some local citizens, put Manx into custody. While in prison, Manx enters a deep coma and remains there for many years, all but forgotten.

Fast forward many years, and Vic has a child of her own. Through therapy and various treatments, she has come to terms with her past, and has mostly written off the strange details as childhood fantasy. But all of that changes when Charlie Manx passes away in prison. Of course that in itself is not such a surprise, but the fact that his body then goes missing, after the autopsy, causes a police and media firestorm. But after her experience with Manx, Vic knows what really happened. Manx escaped from the prison and is coming to her for revenge!

At nearly 700 pages, this novel goes into great depth with each character, but never feels long. In fact, this story had me staying up into all hours of the night, just to finish a section. Hill creates flawed characters that you can't help but relate to and root for. The surreal elements of the story are made believable by his detailed descriptions and character reactions. He draws on many elements of pop culture, even devoting part of his mythology to an element from the Harry Potter novels. The juxtaposition of the normal feelings associated with Christmas and the horrific actions that take place at the warped "Christmasland" effectively horrifies and delights at the same time. NOS4A2 is Joe Hill at the top of his game, and I certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a great read.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 21, book 19)

Friday Flicks: The Great Gatsby

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This week, I'm testing a new feature for A Book A Week. Hollywood often adapts bestselling novels into feature films. In this feature, I'll post reviews of some of these book to film adaptations. This weeks Friday Flick is the latest adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, The Great Gatsby.

The Great Gatsby is a novel that has famously failed to cross into other mediums. With this latest adaptation, by director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!), I was curious to see how Luhrmann's unique style would translate to this classic story. I entered the theater with a fair amount of trepidation, especially after the largely mixed reviews that I'd read. To my surprise, however, I really enjoyed this adaptation.

There were a couple of major alterations to the novel's original story, namely Nick's background and the events that take place after his time with Gatsby, but the film was mostly faithful to the novel. Many of the reviews argued against the director's style over substance approach, but I completely disagree with these claims. While there are moments of dazzling camera acrobatics and 3D effects, there are also many moments of quiet introspection. DiCaprio's Gatsby is probably the most sincere portrayal of this character that will ever appear on film. His interactions with both Maguire's Nick and Mulligan's Daisy seemed genuine, and I could really feel the soul of the man behind the facade he had made for himself.

This unique interpretation will, no doubt, garner a variety of reactions amongst the faithful readers and casual moviegoers. In the end, it is probably impossible to perfectly translate the intentions of the novel into a film, but this one comes pretty close.

Have you read the novel or seen the film? If so, what did you think of it?

As always, your input helps determine the content of this blog. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this new feature. Is it something you would like to see more of? If so, Which adaptations would you like to see reviewed?

The Healer by Antti Tuomainen

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Ever since the massive success of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy, translated to English from its original Swedish, there has been an increase in translated novels to the American marketplace. And while some of these foreign authors have really resonated with the American public, think Larsson and Jo Nesbo, others seem to have been lost in translation.

In the Healer, a novel by Finnish author Antti Tuomaninen, poet Tapani Lehtinen navigates a post-apocalyptic Helinski, in search of his missing wife, Johanna. Johanna is a journalist who works for a newspaper that is struggling to maintain its relevance in this strange new world. Immediately before here disappearance, she was investigating a serial killer known as "The Healer". The Healer is known for murdering prominent businessmen, politicians, and their families, all because of their involvement in pursuits that harm the environment. As Tapani studies Johanna's research into the murders, he realizes that she was close to discovering the identity of The Healer. Now he worries that she is pursuing this known serial killer, or worse, The Healer is pursuing her.

This post-apocalyptic world, as imagined by Tuomaninen, falls in line with the bleak views that most of these European authors write about. Society has failed, medicine and doctors are hard to come by, and the police have been made obsolete by a lack of government, money, technology, and manpower. Therefore, the recover of Johanna falls on the shoulders of her husband, Tapani. As he investigates further into her disappearance, he uncovers secrets from her past that threaten to unravel everything he thought he knew about the woman he loves.

Despite the promising premise, I felt that the author was simply going through the motions on this one. I enjoyed the fast pace and entertainment value of the story, but any deeper meaning is either nonexistent or lost in the translation from the original text. There is never enough backstory or emotional depth to make any of the characters worth rooting for. In the end, the motivation behind The Healer's killings is almost laughable. It seemed that the author was trying to make some kind of political statement that comes across as misplaced within the context of the novel. Are we really supposed to believe that with all the chaos and corruption taking place and threatening lives, a person has decided to protect the environment? In this world where infrastructure has failed and disease threatens to spread at plague like speed, it is far more plausible that The Healer would be more concerned with saving his own life, rather than taking others for some political statement. Despite these shortcomings, I have to admit that the novel kept my attention, and I read it easily over the course of an afternoon. While it is not the pinnacle of foreign writing, it is an entertaining read that displays the promise of reading some of these translated novels.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 20, book 18)




The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne

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Daniel Hunter is no stranger to lost causes. In fact, there was a time, not too long ago, when he himself was seen as a lost cause. His mother was a junkie, so he spent most of his childhood dependent upon the state to place him in proper care. He always felt a constant need to look after his mother, even sacrificing his own needs for her benefit.

But then he went to live with Minnie. At first, he treated her like all the other foster parents, eager to leave and return to his mother. But there was something different about Minnie. A widow who lost her husband soon after the shocking death of her only daughter, Minnie seemed just as damaged as he was. Soon, the two formed a bond, and Daniel finally seemed to find a home. 

Then the betrayal happened. While Daniel was beginning his studies as a law student, he discovered a secret that Minnie had kept from him. This information was simply too much to handle. Suddenly Minnie changed from a loving mother figure to just another person who betrayed his trust. In that moment, Daniel vowed never to speak to her again, and to create his future on his own. 

Fast forward a few years, and Daniel is a successful solicitor working in London. His own troubled background has provided him with the unique ability to defend troubled youth. After the unexpected death of an eight-year-old boy, found dead in a playground, he is called to defend the eleven-year-old neighbor, Sebastian Croll, accused of murdering the other boy. Instantly, Daniel feels a connection to Sebastian. The young boy is surprisingly aware of his situation, and consistently declares his innocence.  But there is something unsettling about the boy. He seems strangely fascinated with the details of the other boy's death, and displays an unusual interest in topics that most would find disturbing. 

Despite this, Daniel agrees to defend Sebastian. Immediately, the media latches on to the story, shining a light not only on the lives of the victim and accused, but on Daniel as well. As the case begins, Daniel learns of the death of Minnie. Now, as he embarks on arguably the most important case of his career, Daniel finds his past colliding with the present, forcing him to remember his past actions, and atone for his own personal guilt. 

In The Guilty One, author Lisa Ballantyne has crafted a genuine story of believable characters facing the harsh realities of our time. She calls into question the practices of juvenile trials, and the effects such events have on the mental and physical health of those involved. Each chapter alternates  between the present events of the trial Daniel's personal flashbacks. In doing this, Ballantyne lets to story slowly unfold, maximizing both the suspense as well as character development. She beautifully creates connections between the past and present events, bringing and inevitable coherence to the entire narrative. Despite the often unpleasant subject matter, especially in the details of the small child's death, I felt emotionally connected and moved by the characters and events that unfolded. The ending, while not necessarily expected, left me satisfied and craving even more time with the characters that a grew close to. This is an exceptional novel of emotional depth and lingering suspense. 

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and GoodReads.

(2013: week 19, book 17)

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